Bo Diddley: Rock ’n’ Roll Legend
The Wright Stuff

Deadpan Walking

I managed to spin an interview with Steven Wright – conducted a few weeks before he got to Australia – out into a couple of mags. There’s a little bit of overlap, and I will get around to posting the entire transcript, give-or-take.

The FilmInk Article:

“I mainly do stand-up,” Steven Wright confesses in that laconic deadpan voice that seems to waste no word or effort in getting its message across. “I just do a film once in a while.”

Although film and television work has run parallel to his career as a stand-up comic, you may not have even realised that you’ve seen watching Steven Wright in action. But you’ve certainly heard him. His was the deadpan ‘K-Billy Supersounds of the 70s’ DJ’s monotone that introduced the songs of the Reservoir Dogs (1992) soundtrack, a gig that came to him courtesy of the film’s editor, Sally Menke. Menke, who has subsequently edited all of Quentin Tarantino’s films, suggested Wright to the director when they’d gotten close to the end of the film and still “didn’t have the guy on the radio yet”.

Since Reservoir Dogs was Tarantino’s debut feature, he didn’t have a track record. Steven Wright certainly did – he’d been a regular on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, and he had a seminal hit record to go with it: the 1986 live album I Have A Pony. Tarantino went for the idea of having Wright’s voice in his film, and Menke assured Steven that Tarantino was “a different film maker” who was going to make it with a “really very different” film, so he should go for it too.

“I knew her and I trusted her sensibilities,” Wright says, “so I went in and did it. She was correct. I was happy to be in that film. To be in a movie that was such a milestone in cinema… it’s fun to be part of that.”

What about a gig like voicing a character on The Simpsons? Surely it’s fun to be a part of that, too – a bunch of people around a microphone, cracking each other up. But the comic assures me that, like Babe: Pig in the City (1998) and The Swan Princess (1994), it’s still work – a matter of “getting the lines down”. And, he says, there was none of this ‘standing around the microphone making each other laugh’ business: “They do the voices separately. You’re not even talking to the other actors.”

Ah, the magic of cinema. In my head, actors voice an animation together around the microphone, in one session. Without missing a beat or (of course!) betraying any emotion, Wright does his best to humour me, at least regarding the Simpsons episode. “They didn’t do it that way when I was there. But I was only there that one time. Maybe it’s like that with the rest of the cast…”

“Look, it’s okay,” I assure him, “I shouldn’t be so naïve. I should have known there’d be a more cost- and time-efficient way of producing an animation…”

“No,” he continues to try to let me off the hook. “How would you know? Nobody knows.”

It is for Reservoir Dogs that Wright reserves a particular fondness, not least of all for “some mistakes” he made on some of the takes. “Tarantino used the take where I stumbled over the words, and he put that in the movie. That’s always amused me.”

Of course, directors often opt for the ‘stylised’ take: Charlie Martin Smith almost dropping the bottle of grog thrown to him by the punk robbing the liquor store is what George Lucas wanted us to see in American Graffiti (1973); much to the consternation of George C. Scott, Stanley Kubrick chose to use all of the takes of him going ‘over the top’ in Dr Strangelove (1964). When I reveal the latter fact to the comic, he exclaims – well, as much as his deadpan monotone can convey ‘exclamation’ – “I’d like to see that! Where did you see that? I love that movie!”

In both instances, these facts are revealed in bonus features accompanying the films on their respective DVD releases, which is why Wright wouldn’t be aware of either of them, for although he likes going to the movies and watches a lot of films on cable, he admits that he doesn’t really “buy or rent a lot of DVDs.”

The interesting thing about Steven Wright’s acting is that it remains unchanged. Opposite Roberto Benigni in Coffee and Cigarettes (the 1986 short film Jim Jarmusch succeeded in turning into a feature by 2003) or in his own vehicles such as the Oscar-winning The Appointments of Dennis Jennings (1988, in which Wright eventually kills his psychiatrist, played by Rowan Atkinson) and One Soldier (1999; Wright’s ‘Woody Allen’ film depicting a stark Bergmanesque black-and-white existential absurdity in which the Russia of Allen’s 1975 masterpiece Love & Death is replaced with post-Civil War Americana), or even voicing an animated character, Steven Wright appears as himself. Or at least, that ‘self’ that he always appears as on stage and in interviews. According to Wright, the fact that he always only ever plays himself doesn’t affect the acting.

“This is how I am,” he insists. “When I’m acting, I’m really acting like me saying some sentences someone else made up in their movie.” Steven acknowledges that this limits his opportunities as an actor, since he’s only going to be offered jobs where they want him or his voice to appear as they are. “They either want it or they don’t want it,” he says, and if they don’t want it, he isn’t disappointed; acting was never really his focus. “It’s not like, ‘oh, they should give me a chance, I could act like a high-powered lawyer in a court scene’. That was never my goal.”

The Last Article:

Steven Wright stands out as a stand-up comedian. Stand-up comedy is about coercing an audience to see the world from the comedian’s point of view, and so most stand-up comics use some sort of vocal inflection, some sort of physicality, referring to observations of the world that the majority of people share or creating a convincing enough argument to make them see it in a new way. Steven Wright flies in the face of all of that. He has the most emotionless deadpan voice, and his take on life is surreal.

“It’s a small world, but I wouldn’t want to paint it,” he’ll observe.

“I like to fill my tub up with water and then turn the shower on act like I’m a submarine that’s been hit,” he’ll confess.

“The other night I played a game of poker with some Tarot cards; I got a full house and four people died,” he’ll report.

Surely delivering such a surreal take on the world in a monotonous deadpan must make the comic’s job a bit harder.

“That’s just how I talk,” Steven Wright insists, employing a voice slower and deader than ever, as if he’s a record playing at the wrong speed. “I don’t think the audience is thrown off by the style. They’re only concerned with whether it’s funny or not. If it’s funny, they’ll laugh.” Too true. They will and they do. But the gags – virtually no set-up, and a minimal punch line – are so short that Wright must just burn up material. How do you keep feeding the beast when you’ve been clocked delivering 275 jokes in an hour? “It’s difficult to come up with long, new chunks all of the time,” Wright confesses, “but that’s just how it’s been. I’ve never done it another way.”

Earlier in his career, Steven Wright slaved over his performance. He used to divide his material into three categories so that he could pace his show: if the audience started to flag, two funnier gags closer together kept them on side, and when they were on side, less funny gags could be used for longer periods of time. Wright could judge the quality of an audience – and therefore vary (as much as an utterly emotionless deadpan comic may vary) his material accordingly – by listening to them for a few minutes from backstage, before the show. However, Wright doesn’t move the material around like that anymore. “I pretty much know what I’m gonna do before I even go out there,” he says, likening the performance to a ‘play’ – “one long, flowing thing. The other way, I was wasting a lot of energy figuring out which joke was gonna be next. I thought I could perform the material better if I knew the order of it.”

The comic has likened his style to looking at the world with the innocence and naivety of a child and then describing it with the language of an adult. I can’t help wondering if that was easier when he was younger, when he was still experiencing new things all the time. According to Steven, the process hasn’t changed at all. “Writing material is just a specific way of thinking about something,” he explains. “Nobody ever stops thinking and nobody ever stops experiencing. From when you wake up to when you go to sleep your mind is bombarded with words and images and sounds and things on the television and movies and conversations with people.”

Speaking of ‘things on the television and movies’, Wright has an interesting acting career that runs parallel to his comedy. Many were first made aware of him via his monotone, employed as the “K-Billy super sounds of the 70s” DJ in the soundtrack to Reservoir Dogs. His most recent cinematic appearance is in Son of the Mask. Yet with every job, Steven Wright is hired to play himself. Which isn’t a problem since he’s “just saying some sentences someone else made up”. Sure it limits his opportunities, not being able to play a criminal lawyer, say, unless the criminal lawyer spoke in an emotionless deadpan. However, as he never set out to be an actor, Wright doesn’t really mind.

However, when I raise this issue, I do so by referring to Wright’s ‘persona’. That deadpan guy who does stand-up, who is the one that appears in films, “he’s the one that I’m talking to right now,” I say. At which point, the comic falls out of character for the briefest moment and starts to laugh, as though the concept of there being more to Steven Wright than the deadpan comic persona is utterly ridiculous. The irony being that there has to be more to Steven Wright than the deadpan comic persona in order for that part of him to find the concept ridiculous.

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